Multiculturalism in Church and Society:
Progressivism, tolerance and unity

by David Beswick, 1996

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These principles which have applied in the past to tolerance of denominational as well as ethnic differences now need to be considered in relation to differences within a united or uniting church. We practised some of this tolerance in the early years after the formation of the Uniting Church, at least in regard to not pressing the special interests of the Congregational, Methodist or Presbyterian traditions. Other differences have arisen since union and there have been several special interest groups which have attempted to take over the Church without regard to the need to forebear in the interests of social or institutional harmony. Depending upon how successful such attempts are, others in the Church are alienated and some leave. The charismatic renewal movement pushed hard enough ten to fifteen years ago to cause local splits and a significant number to leave and join sectarian groups or in some cases when their local church had been taken over to leave and join other mainstream churches.

Recently, the proponents of a social and political ideology focussed on some traditional beliefs of the political left and certain kinds of personal freedoms, especially sexual freedom, have managed to push the limits to the point where many feel they no longer belong. The strongest symbol of this current movement is the affirmation of a homosexual lifestyle as a legitimate alternative in a Christian understanding of right relationships. This particular symbol is made more significant and has more disruptive potential because it is linked with a pervasive ideology of progress which competes directly with traditional Christian beliefs, and that not because Christian beliefs that have been maintained over many generations are necessarily conservative, as in many respects they envisage necessary and in the end inevitable change.

To ask a person's attitude to homosexual behaviour is the latest in a series of tests of whether a person is "progressive". Forty years ago some aspect of socialism, such as public ownership, the rights of workers or support for the Soviet Union, would have been a sign of a progressive attitude. In the sixties it was race relations and civil rights; and the seventies the promotion of education and welfare policies, etc. Some ideas cease to be regarded as progressive because the essential goals of proposed changes are achieved and society moves on to other concerns, but other causes become unpopular because they are found to have serious flaws or the direction of social change itself changes so that attention is directed towards new interests. New goals are sought which lie neither beyond nor behind those previous thought progressive but in a different direction entirely. New growth , in fact, seldom comes in the same shape as the old. You cannot predict social change by extrapolating current trends. Another way of putting it is to say that if you follow the trends you will always find that you are not only behind but going more or less in the wrong direction. Trendies soon find themselves on the down side of the wave, and no longer able to see the direction in which things are moving.

It is characteristic of progressive ideologies that they tend not to be confirmed by actual changes, for while they have a theory of inevitable development, the direction of change that is experienced twists and turns from one period to another. Yet in any particular period there is a tendency to regard the present direction of movement as necessarily extending into the future. What we have seen in recent years is a particularly strident affirmation of that view, so that anyone who questions the value or the inevitability of the desired development is dismissed as "conservative" regardless of whether it is the rate or the direction of change that is being questioned.

The dogmatism of "progressive" attitudes which surround the affirmation of homosexual alternatives is what gives rise to sectarian threats and reactions, creating tensions between groups which are similar to multicultural tensions or the old differences between denominations. Sadly, people seem to have forgotten the need to forebear in the pursuit of some of their claims if we are to live together in a multicultural, religiously diverse society. The kind of differences which once existed between denominations or separate societies now have to be accommodated within the one Church. That is not to say the Church is not concerned with the search for truth, or that there is no objective truth, for we believe there is, just as we believe in one God. Post-modern cynicism does not belong in a Christian Church, but we must go beyond it without thinking that the only alternative to a particular view of what is progressive is to go back where we came from. It is that single dimensional view of inevitable progress in a particular direction that needs to be questioned.

What we have been witnessing in the Uniting Church recently looks like an extraordinarily confident attempt to bring off a coup. It is not impossible that a take-over attempt could succeed, but it is unlikely even when the bid has a degree of official sponsorship. It is important to recognize that it would be very difficult for any special interest group within a broadly based diverse church to maintain control even if the initial coup succeeded. Thousands would leave, and if the same thing were repeated nationally some sections of the Church would probably separate, but there is no reason to expect that all or the major part of the vanquished opposition would quietly depart. Why should they walk out and leave the assets to be used for purposes which they strongly disapprove? The majority are more likely to say, "It is our Church too!" so we had better learn how to live together. [This paragraph was disturbingly prescient given what happened seven years later, except that it seems I was too hopeful. DB Oct 2003]

The unity we seek and which is Christ's will and his gift to the church is, of course, more than mere tolerance. We have to work together to discover its greater depth and receive its blessings; and that means seeking the truth together while we recognise our differences. In the long run, unity without truth is like peace without justice, it cannot endure. In this sense we will never be satisfied with the secular vision either of freedom or multicultural tolerance. We must seek an integrated functioning whole body in which each part is honoured and none is considered expendable in the pursuit of a limited objective. The "faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic church", to which we are committed in the Basis of Union, will never be realised by driving out those who disagree with us or by threatening to leave if we don't get what we want, or by slipping easily into sectarian solutions. To fulfil our calling in the Uniting Church will mean struggling to maintain tolerance while we work together on such questions as whether a generalised doctrine of gentile inclusion justifies behaviour that is consistently condemned in scripture or what it means to recognise Christ in others whose subculture we find abhorrent or how a culture may undergo baptismal regeneration. The multicultural solution is not the end to be sought, but it contains some elements of the way forward.

Letter to the Editors of The Auburn Report, subsequently published by them, with the above article, December 1996

6 November 1996

The Editors
The Auburn Report

In the past I have been, as you said a few months ago, "mildly critical" of The Auburn Report for being too negative it its attitude to the Uniting Church in general, and in particular for being too selective in finding fault while failing to recognize many good and hopeful developments. After recent events and especially the 1996 Victorian Synod I must admit you were closer to the truth than I was. I repent of unreasonable loyalty to an institution that has become increasingly corrupt. The sense in which I use the word corrupt is that illustrated in the following parable from my sermon last Sunday.

A little parable of change for life or death

If you go for a walk in the forest you will see evidence of change all around you. Now in Springtime especially, you will see new shoots appearing, seedlings coming up and young plants growing and struggling for a place in the sun: all of that is one kind of change, the kind that makes for life. But there are also other kinds of change in the natural world of the forest. Besides growth and development in many forms of life, you will see trees fallen over, rotting logs and sticks on the floor of the forest, and if you look closely there will be myriads of insects, worms and other organisms aiding the breakdown of organic matter that is being returned to soil. These signs of corruption are the changes associated with death. Both kinds of change are necessary parts of the natural order of this created world. It is like that in the church today. The next time someone exhorts you to be ready to change, ask yourself what kind of change you are being asked to make: is it a change to do with life or with death. Is it a way of growth and development into the light, or is it a change of decay, disintegration and death. Modern doctrines of progress do not make this distinction clear. Much as it may be unpopular ever to say 'No', it is necessary to discriminate between changes that make for life and those that make for death.

More to the point of your publication I enclose an article you might like to consider publishing. [I then commented on its rejection by the official church journal.]

Yours sincerely,

David Beswick

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